Matheu Watson - frantic beat of the one-man band

Matheu Watson had a day off the other week and didn’t know what to do with himself. It’s been pretty much the story of the twenty-two year old multi-instrumentalist from Strathpeffer’s year.

As well as working on the soundtrack to Brave for several weeks during the spring and summer, he’s been touring with piper Fred Morrison, fiddlers Duncan Chisholm and Emma Sweeney and Highland step dance team Dannsa, recording with singers Julie Fowlis and Emily Smith, teaching on music courses and generally being the first call guitarist for those in the folk world seeking sensitive accompaniment.

Somewhere in this whirr of activity Watson also found time to record and produce his own second album, Dunrobin Place, one of 2012’s most impressive releases on which he played all twenty or so instruments and composed much of the music. It’s been enthusiastically reviewed throughout the UK and makes a major statement of where this young man is in his career, and yet, for Watson, his own music is almost incidental to the work he does for other artists.

“Obviously I’m pleased that people have liked Dunrobin Place and my album before that but I never saw myself having a solo career,” he says. “I see music as a lifetime apprenticeship and I’m always learning from the people I work with. I never say no to a gig unless I already have something in the diary because I love being given access to people and finding out what it is that drives them to make the music they make. Besides, at twenty-two, it would be a bit bold for me to say, Na, I don’t fancy that. I just know that I’d look back and feel embarrassed about it.”

He goes on to tell the story of having to turn down a recording date at Abbey Road earlier this year which involved a ninety-six piece orchestra, a dream gig that he couldn’t do because he was actually in the same studio complex mastering Dunrobin Place on a budget that he’d been able to secure through a friend – and the chance to work on his own record at the hallowed north London studios, at these rates, wasn’t going to come around again too quickly. “I felt a bit daft about that, to be honest,” he says.

Music has been central to Watson’s life since his dad began lulling him to sleep with his Gibson 335 guitar. Both parents played guitar and wrote songs and his mother working with the Fèis Rois traditional music education project led the young Matheu towards the fiddle, which he started playing aged nine. It was around this time that he unilaterally changed the spelling of his first name from the more conventional Matthew to the French version but mistakenly omitting the ‘i’. “I’m stuck with it now,” he says resignedly.

By the age of eleven he was writing tunes and investigating as many other instruments as he could lay hands on as he absorbed the soundtracks to family holidays that ranged from Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt to Runrig, the Chieftains and the Bothy Band. Having extracted himself from school and become largely self-educated in music theory, by sixteen his talent was being noticed by musicians including his dad’s best friend, Calum MacDonald of Runrig, and piper Fred Morrison.

“I’d actually been accepted onto the University of the Highlands and Islands music course on North Uist when Fred invited me to play some gigs in Spain and then I arrived at uni late because I’d spent the weekend playing at the Outsider Festival in Aviemore and at Glastonbury with Salsa Celtica,” he says. “Then I’d go off and play on the mainland when I really should have been doing course work, so I led a kind of charmed existence as far as the course leader, Anna Wendy Stevenson, was concerned and got my HNC by the skin of my teeth.”

Still unsure if he could succeed as a professional musician once he’d finished college, he spent the next nine months working as a cleaner, while still playing at nights and weekends, before the chance to earn better money in more enjoyable working conditions won out.

His diary for 2013 is looking at least as busy as the past three years, with work for the Scots Music Group’s Inspire 2 project that’ll pair him with Paul Savage of Chemikal Underground alongside television shows, gigs, the re-release of his first album, simply titled Matheu Watson, and the launch of a new project, Sonant.

“I’m using that as a pseudonym because it’s going to be completely different from the other stuff I do,” he says. “It’ll be more song-based and I’ll be playing electric guitar, which I’ve done since I was twelve or thirteen. I don’t want to say too much more about it except that I’m hoping to have the first release available by the end of 2013 and I think it might surprise people.”

Dunrobin Place and Matheu Watson are released through Proper Music.

From The Herald, December 21, 2012.

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